Why I do what I do! (On comedy performance poetry being as valid as any other type, and that kick I get when people actually laugh!)

Why I do what I do

Slain McGough Davey asked earlier this week why certain people feel compelled to make art and gave some reasons of his own, and this got me thinking about what I do and the reasons why. And then a couple of days later an article appeared in The Guardian which suggested that comedy is not seen as artistic or as worthy as more serious fare, and pointed out that it should be held in the same esteem, as the effort gone into making funny comedy is just as strenuous and as hard as so-called ‘high’ culture.

My one aim whenever I sit at a desk or stand in a rehearsal space is to make something that will make people laugh and enjoy themselves, and take them away from their normal daily concerns. Indeed, there can be no more rewarding sound than that of an audience laughing along with a poem or some humorous linking material or on-stage buffoonery.

I remember my first ever gig, in 2009. I was incredibly nervous, and I had spent the month before writing a couple of ‘humorous’ poems, which I’d typed out on big sheets of paper. I remember my hands shaking as I read the poems out, but the nervousness seemed to disappear once it became apparent that the audience was laughing at all the parts of the poems that I had thought were funny. It was a life-changing moment, because it meant that the sense of humour which I’d thought was unique to myself could be translated into laughs from an audience.

I look at the poems now and cringe, because they weren’t as fully formed or as realised as the ones that I now perform. In other words, parts of them went on and on for a bit. They were badly in need of editing, but those nuggets, those golden lines and phrases which had the audience laughing, still exist.

These days I work on poems for weeks, months at a time, before they are unleashed on an audience. In a way there’s more pressure now, because the audience expects to laugh and I have to live up to that expectation. I have a phrase I use whenever I’m writing, ‘This poem needs to be 33 percent funnier’. I don’t know where I got the figure of ’33 percent’ from, but it’s a good mantra to have at the back of my mind whenever I’m writing.

The poem really comes alive during the rehearsal process. It is at this time that I have a pen on hand, going over lines and refining them, making them funnier, adding attitude and tags to maintain the laughter, or build up the suspense only to pop it.

Regular attendees of my gigs will know that there’s always a serious undercurrent to a lot of my poetry. Indeed, comedy performance poet is the ideal manner in which to address certain subjects such as gender representation, heteronormativity and, in my most recent new slam poem, homophobic abuse. Taking the audience by the hand and guiding them through tough subject matter while making jokes, (and not punching down or being mean or unkind), and then getting a laugh or two along the way, as an immensely satisfying feeling.

It’s true that I’ve been told, only by a couple of people over the last few years, that comedy performance poetry isn’t as worthy or as well-crafted as the more serious end of the spoken word spectrum. And this is a shame, as one of those comments came from a poet who I really admire. In the context of a gig or even a slam, a poem which encourages a laugh from the audience is somehow seen as ‘cheating’, while comedy performance poems are just slung together with no artistic merit. The truth is, as any comedy performer will tell you, a lot of work goes into placing the words in the exact order to elicit that response, and a lot of work also goes into the rehearsal of those words, movement, facial expression, emphasis. If art is judged by the amount of hours that goes into its creation, then comedy performance poetry is right up there with anything else.

And because of this, I only ever perform a tiny amount of what I actually write. When it comes to being performed, my poems probably have a one in ten chance of ever making it in front of an audience. Those that don’t are prodded, poked, re-worked, or sometimes simply torn apart, the juicy, funny lines being extracted and popped into other poems.

So, why do I do what I do? For a start, it’s probably the only thing I’m halfway decent at. I can’t cook a quiche to save my life, or put a fuse in a plug, or even catch a bus on a good day without causing absolute bloody mayhem. But I can write and perform comedy poems that make an audience laugh.

And secondly, there’s no greater feeling than getting off a stage with an audience clapping and cheering because you’ve just made their evening. I remember Bristol last year, performing at the Arnolfini Theatre and then, rock and roll monster that I am, I found a late night twenty four hour Tesco and did my shopping. In the bread aisle I came across a couple of people who had been in the audience and they thanked me for making them laugh and cheering them up. And that, oh, that was probably the highlight of my year!

Feel free to support the work I’m doing by leaving something in my tip jar or buying me a coffee right here https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham

Author: Robert Garnham

Performance and spoken word artist.

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